When you’ve been testing guitars as long as I have, it’s hard to look at an instrument with a familiar design and not have a set of expectations before you even play a note. And so my expectations for the new Fender Highway Series Parlor were filtered through the “thin body acoustic made by a company known for making electric guitars” prism.
A lot of those initial expectations weren’t that far off. Shorter scale aside, the guitar’s neck would feel at home on a Telecaster, its headstock and six-in-line tuners are signature Fender, and its sleek, comfortable contours are clearly in line with what the company has done since carving the back of its first Stratocaster 70-odd years ago.
What I didn’t expect was the fullness of sound coming from this very compact and lightweight instrument—nice and round and even a bit on the fat side. It produces a lot more bottom end than its size would suggest, while also projecting well enough to be played unplugged in a small room.
All that said, the Highway, with its specially designed Fishman Fluence pickup, is clearly designed to be amplified. I tested the guitar through a Phil Jones Nano Bass X4 amp, direct into my Universal Audio Apollo interface, and unplugged, and was uniformly impressed by its excellent tone and flexibility.
The Road to Tone
The Highway Parlor is the smaller of two similar thin-bodied acoustic-electrics from Fender, and each comes in two versions: all-mahogany or spruce-topped mahogany. (I tested the all-mahogany version.) Unlike some previous efforts, the Highway doesn’t try to look like an acoustic version of a popular Fender electric; it was clearly designed for players who want a more traditional acoustic shape without the bulk of an acoustic body. Accordingly, the Highway looks streamlined and almost aerodynamic, with sleek curves. It’s inviting, to say the least.
But a lot of what makes the guitar interesting is invisible. The body is chambered and boasts a tapered floating X-bracing pattern. This design produces a full sound with a round, rather than cutting, top end and a full, rather than scooped, midrange.
The rest of the instrument draws from a blend of acoustic and Fender electric touchpoints. The neck uses a three-bolt system with a tilt adjustment for neck angle—not all that different from that on the 1980 Strat I bought in high school. But with today’s building methods and tighter tolerances, the design is way better than it was back in the days of bell-bottoms. The neck is very stable in its slot, and there are no dead spots.
The action was a bit high at first. Fortunately, I was able to adjust both the truss rod and the neck angle with the included Allen wrenches. While the test guitar didn’t come with a manual or adjustment guide, the adjustments were intuitive; they took only five minutes and made the guitar very playable.
The svelte neck has Fender’s familiar C shape, and the fretboard radius is 12 inches. The nut is on the narrow side at 1.6875 inches, and the frets are tall and narrow like on a vintage Fender. Overall, the Highway is very fun to play. Even though the neck feels quite like an electric, I naturally gravitated toward fingerstyle acoustic when testing the guitar, and there is ample room to hold chord shapes and let open strings ring in arpeggiated patterns. On the flip side, I have a student who struggles to reach the open G chord shape on her own acoustic guitar. She tried the Highway, and it was definitely easier for her.
Fender promotes the thin body design as more comfortable. I personally don’t find a full-sized acoustic uncomfortable, and sitting with a thin, curvy guitar means adjusting my position. But I know a lot of players—including that student—who get swallowed up by a deep guitar. As a package, the Highway is easy to live with, even if you don’t mind a big guitar.
A big part of the Highway’s design is the active Fluence pickup, which is both visually and sonically different from most systems. Mounted at the top of the soundhole, the transducer has a crescent shape that follows the soundhole’s curves. It looks organic, with the black of the pickup offering a nice offset to the mahogany’s café au lait finish. The back of the guitar includes a battery compartment for the Fluence’s 9-volt battery and a panel for servicing the electronics.
There are two controls below the right side of the bridge: volume and contour. The latter is different from most tone controls in that it moves between a range of sonic profiles. In what would usually be full-on position, the tone is fatter and jazzier; in the rolled-off position, it’s lighter and more acoustic. There are plenty of shades in between those two settings.
Through the Nano Bass—a compact amp with a big low end—the Highway sounds deep and rich. With reviews, I usually just start playing and let the guitar take me somewhere before coming back to touch all the bases, and this guitar led me to fingerstyle with the melody on the lower strings. It was easy to control the attack and get a clear, powerful tone. I added a bit of treble at the amp to get the top strings to punch a little more, but amplified, the balance across all six strings was impressive. So while the Fluence doesn’t cut like a piezo, neither does it squawk.
Plugging directly into the Apollo and listening with headphones, I was better able to isolate the electronics from the acoustic sound and get a sense of how the contour control works. The best way I can describe it is that the top end is mostly untouched, while the mids and low mids shift with the control. As with the amp, the full-on position makes the low end punchy, and the rolled-off end offers a tighter bass sound. Being able to tailor the midrange and get just enough emphasis on the lower mids would be especially handy for feeding a house PA system.
Keys to the Highway
Fender clearly sees the Highway as an alternative to a traditional acoustic instrument that retains some of a flattop’s shape and vibe. The fast neck and thin body are clearly aimed at electric players. In that sense, it’s a bullseye.
Will it appeal to traditional acoustic players? Let’s stipulate that if you can play lead lines on a traditional dreadnought or fingerpick on a nylon-string, the thin neck isn’t going to change your life. But the range of tones, and the interaction of a resonating body, do make the Highway as different from a normal electric guitar as it is from a traditional acoustic. I can see this as a strong alternative for looping or effects-laden acoustic music, where you want the tone of the acoustic but the control of an electric.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2024 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.